The media, as usual, are missing the point. Like a set of nested Russian dolls, it’s still not clear how far the Russia scandal afflicting the Trump administration will go. But regardless of eventual outcome, it is dominating media and political attention to the exclusion of almost everything else in Washington.
If you’re a Trump supporter, of course the Russia allegations are a witch hunt and an outrage. If you’re a Democrat, they are a courageous attempt to stop the integrity of democracy itself being undermined by hostile foreign powers. But Democrats also saw the Clinton e-mail scandal as a ridiculous witch-hunt. Republicans saw it as a fundamental issue of character and fitness for leadership.
It doesn’t mean scandals shouldn’t be investigated. The real issue is how much attention the media obsession with political scandal drains from other issues. As Walter Russell Mead argues,
For both the Left and the Right, the ever-Trumpers and the never-Trumpers, the scandal is a bright shiny object that distracts. Our national house is on fire, and we are all focused on a particularly challenging level of a hot new video game.
Scandals are a symptom of factionalism. The Founding Fathers were acutely aware of its dangers, as Madison explained in The Federalist No. 10 in November 1787.
AMONG the numerous advantages promised by a well-constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction. The friend of popular governments never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate, as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice. … The instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils, have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished;
There was no way to avoid faction, Madison argued. “Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires.” However, he hoped it would be contained by having a (small-r) “republican” form of government, with decisions delegated to those with fit character (such as himself,) instead of pure democracy, Factionalism would also be diluted by the larger Union.
The trouble is the contemporary Washington scene is a small, tightly-knit interpenetrating network of elites who are notoriously often surprised by the world outside the beltway.
Factionalism isn’t diluted, it’s concentrated inside the Beltway. Professional politicians and interest groups live and die by factional outrage. Media coverage tends to turbocharge partisan and factional feelings.
The Madisonian fixes no longer work. And worst of all, instead of factionalism being driven primarily by disputes over income distribution, as Madison believed, they are increasingly a matter of divisive identity and racial groupings.
So we need different checks and balances that dilute factionalism. We need a better error correction loop, based more on recognizing when something is not working. I’ll come back to this.